HC Deb 30 July 1997 vol 299 cc333-40
Q3. Mr. Beith

Does the Prime Minister recall that, before the general election, he gave strong support to the case for dualling the A1 from Newcastle to Edinburgh and that shadow Ministers put it in writing that it would not be affected by any moratorium or review of the roads programme? Does he still agree that the gap in the strategic road system—the only all-weather route between London and Edinburgh—ought not to remain, and will he make that known to Ministers, because there seems to be some delay? [9738]

The Prime Minister

It is a stretch of road with which I am well familiar, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that dualling that part of the Al is an important item. He will know that that is currently under consideration. We cannot guarantee a successful outcome, but it is essential that the right infrastructure links are maintained in that part of the world, because it is extremely important for the business that crosses the border between Scotland and England.

Q4. Mr. Tipping

Is it not clear that one of the most damning legacies of the Tory years is the state of disrepair of our schools? In Nottinghamshire alone, there are £111 million-worth of outstanding repairs. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that local education authorities make urgent bids for the £1 billion announced today, so that at least a start can be made on rebuilding our schools? It must be the case that investment in education is investment in the future. [9739]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, the money that has been given—more than £1 billion for the school repairs programme over the lifetime of this Parliament—is the biggest programme that has been introduced for many years. I urge local education authorities and schools to submit their plans so that we can put our schools into a proper state of repair. Many school buildings and many schools in the country fall way beneath what is acceptable if our children are to be taught properly. I am delighted at the announcement today. I hope that my hon. Friend, others of my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members will encourage local education authorities to come forward with proposals.

Mr. Ashdown

May I, in this last Prime Minister's Questions before the summer recess, bring the Prime Minister back to an issue on which his Government have been rather coy over the summer, but which I believe will dominate our politics in the winter? If I were to say to the Prime Minister that one of his Health Ministers has now announced that his Government will spend £350 million less next winter on the health service than the outgoing Conservative Government would have done, would he be surprised?

The Prime Minister

As I have already said, we have inherited the spending plans of the previous Administration. We are sticking to those, but we are putting in the colossal sum of £1.2 billion extra next year. [HON. MEMBERS: "Next year."] Yes, I know that that is next year. We have inherited the proposals of the previous Government for this year, but the money for next year is helping health authorities to plan ahead. Of course, as a result of the changes that are being made, we are gradually reducing the huge burdens of bureaucracy in the internal market that the Conservatives introduced, and which we want to abandon.

Mr. Ashdown

But the right hon. Gentleman precisely has not inherited the previous Government's figures. He has reduced them by the impact of inflation. In case he has forgotten, that was precisely specified in a parliamentary answer given on 7 July. Unfortunately for our hospitals, there is to be a reduction of £350 million against what the previous Government spent. Let me put a more specific question to the Prime Minister. One of his personal five early promises to the electorate at the election was that he would cut waiting lists. Will waiting lists be cut this winter?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely in order to cut waiting lists that we have taken the measures that we have already outlined to cut bureaucracy. The plans that we have inherited are precisely the plans that we are putting through, but more money is going into the NHS as a result of the decisions announced in the Budget. I know that decisions on public finance are difficult, but, in the past few weeks, the hon. Gentleman's party has called for greater expenditure on local government, pensions, young people, health and education. With the best will in the world, we have to make sure that we make the arrangements necessary to bring the large budget deficit down. Within that, the Government will put extra resources into the health service by getting rid of the internal market and by giving more cash to the NHS.

Q5. Mrs. Gilroy

Does my right hon. Friend understand the real anger that South West Water consumers feel at their high water bills, especially as they are imposed by a company that, although it said a few weeks ago that it could not afford the windfall tax without borrowing money, has found £9 million to buy an American firm, and at yesterday's annual general meeting confirmed that it would pay out the highest dividends ever—20 per cent. more than last year? Does my right hon. Friend share with me the wish that the review that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has in hand on utility regulation will ensure that consumers have much more robust representation of their interests? [9740]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. Part of the purpose of the review is to make sure that we construct a long-term framework that is fair to consumers as well as shareholders. Since water privatisation, water and sewerage bills have risen far above the rate of inflation. The profits and dividends of those leading utility companies confirm that we were right to say that the windfall tax could be paid and that we could give our young people the skills and jobs that they needed.

Q6. Mr. Wells

Does the Prime Minister agree with Dr. Festing of Friends of the Earth that Labour has already begun to betray its green promises? Will he condemn the proposals of the Minister for London and Construction and Labour-dominated Hertfordshire county council to build thousands and thousands of houses in the green belt? [9741]

The Prime Minister

That is absolute nonsense. When one investigated the reports in the newspapers that we had announced some great new policy on the green belt, one discovered that that policy is based on the Green Paper published in November by the hon. Gentleman's Government. The policy of this Government has not changed since the policy of the previous Government, so if the hon. Gentleman is criticising us, he must be criticising them, too. I suspect that his question is based on a misapprehension.

Q7. Mr. Pond

Is the Prime Minister aware that, only in the past few hours, the contract has been signed for the brand new £115 million hospital for Dartford and Gravesham, breaking the Tory logjam on the construction of new hospitals? It will provide the hospital for which my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) have campaigned for so long and which they richly deserve. Will he now ensure that the remaining 13 projects under the revamped private finance initiative are brought forward quickly so that people in other areas, in common with my constituents, can see that, whereas the previous Government made promises, this Government keep them? [9742]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am delighted at the news that the contract has been signed for the Dartford and Gravesham hospital. We will make progress on the other 13 remaining projects as quickly as we possibly can. It is a fitting tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and the energy and vigour of this Government that, whereas the previous Government talked about the project for months and months, they did absolutely nothing to deliver it, but, in three months, we have delivered it.

Q8. Mr. Laurence Robertson

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) was correct to raise the issue of the green belt because a report in The Sunday Times at the weekend quoted one of the Prime Minister's Ministers at the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Does the Prime Minister realise that in Gloucestershire such remarks about building on green fields as opposed to brown-field sites will cause great alarm? Does he also agree that, although it may be cheaper and more convenient to build on green-field sites, the long-term costs to future generations would be enormous? [9743]

The Prime Minister

That is precisely why I said to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford that my hon. Friend the Minister was merely setting the same targets as the previous Government had. The policy has not changed in any shape or form. A Green Paper was published in November by the hon. Gentleman's Government, and we are considering the responses to it. There is no intention to cut great swathes through the green belt, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested. We support the idea of the green belt.

Q9. Mr. Hanson

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to see the international crime victimisation report which was published today and which shows that, after 18 years of Conservative Government, Britain has the highest level of car robberies, burglaries and assaults of any of the 11 industrialised nations? Will he confirm to the House what action the new Labour Government intend to take to reduce crime? Will he confirm once and for all that, whatever else it may be, the Conservative party no longer has the right to call itself the party of law and order? [9744]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservative party was the party of law and disorder, because crime doubled during the Conservative years. This Government will take action to reduce it, including action on juvenile offending in particular to try to halve the time that it takes to get juvenile offenders to court. We will also take action against anti-social behaviour in our local communities and, later today, we shall announce action on sentencing.

We are taking action on crime; we are being tough on crime, but we are also addressing the causes of crime. That is why the welfare-to-work programme, which will give jobs to young people, and improvements in our education system give us the best chance of creating a decent, civilised society in which we are more likely to breed responsible citizens.

Q10. Mr. Greenway

What promise did the Prime Minister make to Mr. Roy Hughes, the former Member for Newport, East to make way for the hon. Gentleman who formerly represented Stratford-on-Avon? According to newspaper reports, Mr. Hughes is attributed as having said that he was offered a peerage. If that comes to light during the next few days, would it not show that, even within a 100 days, his Government are steeped in hypocrisy? [9745]

The Prime Minister

I have no intention of commenting on any peers list—but anyone on it will be there on merit. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), now a Minister, was selected on one member, one vote—by a rather larger electorate than chose the present Conservative leader.

Mr. Bill Michie

I welcome the steps already taken by the Labour Government in their first few months of power to raise standards and optimism for the future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a strong manufacturing base for sustained economic growth?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I agree entirely. It is of course important for manufacturing and other parts of industry that we achieve stability for the long term. That is precisely why we took the measures in the Budget to curb the deficit; it is also why we have taken action on interest rates, so as to make absolutely sure that we squeeze any inflation out of the system. We must not go back to the time that followed the last Conservative boom. When it went bust, interest rates were at 15 per cent. for a year and mortgage rates were above 15 per cent. for six months or more. I never want to go back to the days of that Tory boom and bust.

Q11. Mr. Matthew Taylor

Will the Prime Minister perhaps visit Cornwall later this year? If so, I hope that he will not fall ill, because if he does he will find that he is 40 minutes away from an accident and emergency unit—that is the average. He will also find that cottage hospitals across the county are facing permanent closure this winter because of this year's cash shortfalls. Does he agree that it makes no sense to close hospitals now if what he says about increased Government funding next year, and thereafter, is right? [9746]

The Prime Minister

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to say that many hospitals face a very difficult situation, but as I told the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) earlier, it is important to put the public finances on a stable footing. There is fresh money coming into the national health service, not just next year but this year, at this very moment, as a result of cuts in bureaucracy and other changes. In their Budget submission to us, the Liberal Democrats asked us to put an extra £500 million or £600 million into the NHS: we have put double that amount into it.

Mr. Eric Clarke

Is the Prime Minister aware that the people of Scotland warmly welcome the White Paper on devolution? Does he plan to come to Scotland and spend some time in Midlothian? We would welcome him there to the yes, yes campaign—he would certainly get a yes, yes vote for his visit.

The Prime Minister

I very much look forward to taking part in the campaign for Scottish devolution. It is important that Scotland should have the chance of a greater say in its own affairs. I am delighted, too, that the Conservative party has now said that it will abide by the verdict of the referendums. That gives us the chance to ensure that the people of Scotland and Wales get their say and that we can put the constitution on a proper, secure, modern footing for the 21st century.

Q12. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Does the Prime Minister intend to continue appointing Members of this House who represent Scottish constituencies as Ministers with responsibility for English matters? [9747]

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, all Members of the House are treated equally—that is, should be, and will remain, the position. Possibly the most authoritative statement on the subject came from a former Conservative Prime Minister in the early 1960s, when the issue of Stormont was raised. He made it quite clear why all Members of Parliament should be treated equally.

Q13. Mr. Bennett

Will the Prime Minister accept the thanks of my constituents for a job well started, and their wish that he should enjoy a well-deserved summer break—[Interruption.] Despite the jeers from the Opposition, I am sure that everyone agrees that he ought to enjoy a good summer holiday. When he comes back, however, will he look at the problems that came up at the Earth summit—in particular, the difficulties of persuading the United States and the major oil companies to do something about global warming? Will he also consider the need to agree on effective targets at the Kyoto conference? [9748]

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his good wishes for the holiday and I hope that everyone has a good holiday. It is obviously very important that the Kyoto conference is a success. There is now a better chance of that happening as a result of the UN General Assembly special session. My hon. Friend will know that the European Union has committed itself to very tough targets for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. I was delighted by the recent speech of President Clinton, which presaged a different attitude on the part of the United States. If it is possible to do so, we should get out of Kyoto a set of binding limits that allow us to take the measures necessary to put our environment on a stable footing for the long term.

Q14. Mr. Jenkin

May I ask the Prime Minister to clarify an answer that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that it is perfectly all right for a Minister who is a major shareholder in one of our leading energy companies to lead Government policy on gas liberalisation in the European Community, or will he give an undertaking that such obvious conflicts of interest, for as long as the Minister has to hold those shares, will not now take place? [9749]

The Prime Minister

Both the hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition should have noticed the more serious Members on the Opposition Benches shaking their heads as they were speaking. We are following precisely the procedures that have always been laid down. There is no conflict of interest and my noble Friend has followed precisely the advice of the permanent secretary at the DTI. There has been no impropriety whatever. If there is any evidence of that, let it be produced, but five times his right hon. Friend failed to produce it.

We all know exactly what the game is here. Because, under the previous Government, there were allegations proven of misconduct, the Opposition want to smear the new Government and try to pretend that all politics is the same. Well, all politics is not the same and this Labour Government is not that old Tory Government.